Shocking traffic stats scream ‘Big Brother!’

By Dan Delmar on April 23, 2010

This year, Montreal will issue one traffic ticket for almost every man, woman and child in the city - and that, believe it or not, is a conservative estimate based on information from the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal. Most people aren’t aware of it, or if they are, they accept the ticketing as fair punishment for bad behaviour. If so many of us are breaking the law on such a regular basis, it begs the question: Are we guilty of delinquent behaviour, or are we victims of municipal persecution?

The police department was kind enough to direct The Métropolitain to its website, where we were taken aback by last year’s statistics. In 2009, 609,063 traffic tickets were handed out across the island by police for violations like speeding. Add to that the parking tickets issued, and the number skyrockets another 1,034,176, for a grand total of 1,643,239 vehicle infractions in just one year. 

Mark Twain once said that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” It is a brilliant quote that suggests quantitative data can often  be used to manipulate public discourse. But these statistics are hard to manipulate: 1.8 million residents; 1.6 million tickets. This raises some interesting questions about the ferocity of local law enforcement, the wisdom, of legislators and whether or not this municipal government would survive if not for its policy of harassment-for-profit. 

jaywalk_small.JPGTrue, the revenue generated from these tickets feeds a large central bureaucracy at the city of Montreal and the various smaller bureaucracies in boroughs across the island. As municipal affairs minister a decade ago, Louise Harel envisioned a centralized municipal administration. After the creation of the megacity, Mayor Gérald Tremblay put into place his so-called “decentralization” plan, giving more powers to each borough. After the two equally distasteful plans were merged, the hybrid bastard child that resulted became a perfect model for government inefficiency and waste. It is expensive to maintain and must be supported through high taxes; some transparent, some hidden.

Enter the SPVM and its significantly less respected minions, the green onions. When Montreal is strapped for cash, you can always count on law enforcement to squeeze the extra revenue out of citizens. But when the equivalent of every Montrealer, driver or not, receives a fine, we have to start questioning authority. 

Although individual officers may sometimes show a lack of tact when dealing with the public, the police are not the root of the problem. It is the pressure they face, perhaps from those who run this city, to veer away from real police work to fill city coffers with much needed revenue. That explains the hiring of 130 new officers in 2008 – not to deal with street gang activity, corruption or financial crimes – but to conduct traffic blitzes, trapping motorists to bring in money. 

And there are the quotas, that we’re told don’t exist despite police Brotherhood assertions and the existence of department memos that suggest otherwise. One note dated January 5 clearly spells out « objectifs quantitatives (sic) » to reach for 2010:

« Voici donc, pour chaque équipe, les chiffres à atteindre, » reads the memo sent by Station 42 Commander Sylvain Arsenault. « Constats d’infraction : 1500 pour l’année (125 par mois). »

There are quotas; their rigidity remains unclear, as do the possible consequences for officers who fall short. The SPVM and the Tremblay administration cannot acknowledge quota systems, no matter how overwhelming the evidence to support their existence may be. Again, it comes down to the shadowy and dishonest pillaging of the citizenry’s purse. 

If groups of motorists fighting  speeding tickets could convince judges that the officers who pulled them over were purposely overzealous and trying to keep monthly numbers up to please commanders, the consequences of a ruling in the motorists favour could affect a lot of people. Any number of fines could be overturned; the city’s cash cow would be in danger of disappearing. 

A fantasy scenario, perhaps. It is one, however, that would confirm what many of us in Montreal and elsewhere have already suspected: There are institutionalized efforts on the part of government to demonize citizens for profit. Targeting citizens in coordinated efforts to separate them from their money is immoral, even if it involves lowering speed limits without cause and nabbing unsuspecting drivers under the pretense of public safety. 

It is worth noting that drivers aren’t the only targets. Aside from traffic-related infractions, readers of this newspaper are surely aware of the myriad of creative ways in which the city of Montreal punishes ordinary citizens for ordinary behaviour: Merchants fined for weeds growing on city-owned sidewalks in front of their businesses, Metro riders who don’t hold the escalator handrail, students who don’t sit upright on park benches – these absurdities know no bounds. The common thread with all of these outlandish prohibitions is the criminalization of the banal to justify ever-increasing fines and an expanding bureaucracy. 

In addition to the parking tickets, 11,900 pedestrians who received fines last year, presumably in large part for jaywalking, were unjustly targeted.  We have become so immune to silly, paternalistic regulation that we stand at red lights like dopes, just because they are red, for minutes on end, when there is no oncoming traffic. Our government doesn’t trust able-bodied adults to look both ways before crossing; a fail-safe technique I learned in kindergarten. 

But, of course, fining pedestrians who jaywalk has little to do with safety and more to do with creating the illusion of hazard. Where there is perceived danger, there is a politician eager to exploit it; sometimes for political gain, sometimes for financial gain. 

Is the “zéro accident” jaywalking campaign and crackdown working? In 2008, there were 18 pedestrian deaths in Montreal. In 2009, there were 18. How can you prevent that relatively low number of deadly accidents from reoccurring again in 2010? If you’re in charge at city hall, the answer is clearly pre-emptive punishment through obscene fines; that will teach those jaywalking pedestrians who put no lives in danger and whose actions will likely have no adverse consequences!

Zero deaths is an admirable goal and one is too many, but, for the sake of our collective sanity and our right to freedom of movement, decision-makers need to start thinking within the parameters of the “Shit Happens” factor (The Métropolitain, Feb. 5, 2009). This means accepting that our fragile existence is filled with uncertainty, sometimes tragedy, and a government that attempts, through increasingly overbearing regulation, to prevent the unpreventable, is simply conning the public. 

If this city needs to fine the equivalent of every Montrealer over the course of the year to ensure its financial well-being, it would be preferable to scale back some of the daddy-knows-best regulations and send every one a bill for $42. Call it a “bureaucracy tax,” or something vague, like a “general contribution fee.” Don’t call it anything – just send the bill and stop trying to convince us that taking more of our money will make us safer. Relentless government-sponsored harassment and clandestine taxes are robbing this city of its freedom. What we are witnessing is the emergence of the “Big Brother” state and the slow death of personal liberty. 



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